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Want More Clients? Articulate Who You Work with and Why

April 12, 2018


I’d rather listen to this than read it.


I had just moved with my family to Washington, DC, for my husband’s job. Other than my family, I didn’t know a soul in the DC metro area. (OK, well, there was this one guy I’d met at a TEDActive Conference one time, but otherwise, no one.) I was starting from scratch….again.

I’d left a thriving network and strong coaching practice back in Seattle. I was still mourning the loss of my friends, clients and community, when a friend I hadn’t seen in years came to visit. We were on the metro, on our way to the Smithsonian, when she asked me what I was doing now. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was extemporaneous. It was something like, “I help CEOs and entrepreneurs connect with what gives their lives meaning and purpose and support them in expressing that in their business.”

As I was expanding on that, a man sitting near us said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry for interrupting. But, I overheard what you said you do  and… I need that.” He became my first client in DC. He could see himself in how I described what I do.

Coaching Kool-Aid

When I completed my first coaching certification program, I left believing that it wasn’t appropriate to clearly identify my ideal client. I had drank what I call the Coaching Kool-Aid, which goes something like:

“The client has all of their own best answers.” “The coach owns the process, the client owns the content and the outcomes.” “The coach’s subject matter expertise can get in the way of their coaching.” “If you are contributing your expertise, you are not coaching in line with the ICF core competencies.”

(To be clear, I’m not saying this is wrong or bad or inappropriate. I actually buy into a lot of it. It’s just that the way I internalized it, didn’t support the development of my business and didn’t meet what I felt the market was asking for.)

If I subscribed to the Coaching Kool-Aid, then I thought, by the “transitive property of coaching,” it would be inappropriate for me to clearly describe who I work with. I should be able to work with anyone, assuming they are coachable, right?

And that’s the problem. Oh, and I’m not the only one who drank the Coaching Kool-Aid.

Everyone and No One

For the last several years, I’ve been in the fortunate position to have more coaching opportunities than I can or want to take. So I refer a lot of business to other coaches. Or at least, I try to.

When I meet a coach for the first time, I typically ask, “Who is your ideal client?” Nine times out of 10, I hear something so vague, it could be most anyone. This is the kind of thing I hear:

  • “I work with emerging women leaders.” (OK, well, I guess you’ve eliminated half of the workforce and so the other 72 million are your target market?)
  • “I work with new managers.” (OK, so only about 47 million people.)
  • “I work with leaders of nonprofits.” (There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US – doesn’t narrow it down much.)

Because I’m determined to advocate for, and support, other coaches, when a coach provides vague answers regarding their ideal client, I’ll keep digging to see if I can figure out something, anything, that will help me know who to refer to them (versus any of the other hundreds of coaches I know).

I’ll ask, “If I was talking with someone who was your ideal client, what would they say that would tell me I should introduce them to you?” And I get trite, coachy answers like, “They’ll say they are feeling stuck.  Or that they are in a transition and want help navigating it. Or want to grow and develop personally and or professionally.” Seriously? How, in any way, does that differentiate you and the uniquely meaningful, transformative, life-changing impact you have in this world? Work with me people!  🙂

For the vast majority of us, coaching is a word of mouth (WOM) business. Meaning, most of our business comes from our contacts, our clients’ contacts, or our friends, family and referral partners’ contacts. And for a WOM business, who you work with and the problem you help them solve IS your calling card.  

If you can’t clearly, succinctly, uniquely articulate that, how can you expect to grow your business?

Focus on the Client

Like a lot of coaches, I don’t like describing what I do as a coach. Especially in the context of an elevator rant. I’ve worked with clients to create their elevator pitch, I’ve read books, even led workshops on creating elevator speeches. And every one I’ve created for myself has felt like sawdust in my mouth. (Clearly something I could use coaching around. ☺). However, I can comfortably, passionately and fluidly talk about my clients. (Not by name, of course.)

I found that when I put my focus clearly on who I coach and why, I can speak about them in ways that feel natural to me and allow others to recognize themselves or others they know in it. When I discovered that, I got clearer and more specific about my ideal clients, why they come to me and what they get from me.

Now, any time I’m asked about what I do, I talk about my ideal clients.

Describing the Ideal Client

Several years ago, a coaching colleague walked into a room filled with my coaching clients. (I regularly bring my coaching clients and others together for workshops.) Upon entering the room, she started laughing. After I asked her why, she said, “Alison, everyone looks like you!” I looked around the room and at first, I didn’t get it. Then it clicked!

I was attracting a very specific type of client. My clients shared a narrow set of demographics, firmographics and psychographics. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you coach clones of yourself.)

When I looked around the room, this is what I saw:

CEO/owners of companies $5-50 million in size, male, age 35-45. They work hard, play hard and are athletically inclined. They’ve reached a high level of success relatively early in life, and what happens from here, is all up to them. They’ve run out of what they know to do, and the road ahead is high stakes and uncertain.

This was a eureka moment for me! This is the clientele that I was attracting and was attracted to. I loved working with these guys. It was fun, meaningful and rewarding. These were my ideal clients!

Of course, not 100% of my clients fit this description, but 85% did and still do. Of course, I took on clients who didn’t fit this description. And if you are offended by my identifying my target market as male in this very #MeToo environment, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. Over the course of 15 years, the vast majority of my clients have been men because I have always targeted CEO/owners and the majority of CEO/owners are male. It simply turned out that way. And I like it!

The Ideal Client as Elevator Pitch

When I realized how I was attracting my ideal clients organically, I decided to see if I could engineer it to happen. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say something like:

“I work with CEO/owners of businesses $5-50 million in size. They tend to be males who work hard, play hard and are athletically inclined. They’ve reached a high level of success early in life and they’ve run out of what they know to do. What’s ahead for them is both high stakes and uncertain. By working with me, they become clearer on who they are, what they want and how that aligns with their business. They become more confident, more certain and more relaxed in their work and in their lives.”

When I started saying that, a few exciting things began to happen. People would always ask me about it: “Athletically inclined – where did that come from?” “Do you only work with men?” “I know someone just like that!” Bingo! By saying who my ideal client was and why they worked with me, I was getting exactly the reaction I wanted.  When I shared my ideal client, people were curious about it and about me. People could recognize themselves or someone they knew in my description.

Within about three years, I’d built my business in the DC area up to what it took eight years to build in the Seattle area.

Common Objections

You might be saying “This doesn’t apply to me. My clients don’t have anything in common.” Or “I don’t want to attract clones of myself. Gross!” OK. Fine. Perhaps your clients don’t look alike and perhaps your clients don’t have similar occupations, but all of your clients have one thing in common. You!

Also, you might be thinking “I don’t want to narrowly define who I work with. That will narrow down my chances of getting a referral.” Au contraire! The opposite is true. When you define your ideal clients so generally so that most anyone can be included, no one can see themselves in it!

You might be ruminating, “I’m not sure what I’m doing with my clients. I’m just coaching. What my clients are getting is what all clients of coaching are getting.” And you are uniquely you and you are their coach.

Putting it All Together

How do you put all of this together? Especially if you have some of the common objections noted above, how do you identify your ideal client and what they get from you?

Consider the following:

  • Create a worksheet with four columns.
  • In column 1, list the names of all of the clients you’ve loved working with.
  • In column 2, identify the essence of the challenges your clients brought to the coaching (not the specifics, not the topics, but the meaningful underlying issues).
  • In column 3, identify how your clients have benefited from working with you, in tangible and intangible ways.
  • In column 4, describe your clients – demographically, firmographically, psychographically and in any way that’s relevant – be as detailed and specific as you can.
  • When you’re done, step back and reflect on what your ideal clients have in common, in terms of:
    • What they are like (be specific and don’t be shy)
    • What they come to you for (describe it as uniquely and clearly as possible)
    • What they get from you (articulate this in terms of the ultimate outcomes they get)

Put it all together in a statement: “I work with (what they are like) who (what they come to you for) and (what they get from you).”

Next time someone asks you what you do, try it out and see what happens.

We Are All In This Together

The majority of coaches don’t make a thriving living by coaching. And many coaches who do make a living coaching, do so by coaching other coaches. That’s all okay. And I’m determined to help more coaches and people in related professions thrive doing what they are passionate about doing. The world is full of people who need, want, and would live and perform better, with coaching.

Together we can coach people to become better leaders, to lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives and to create lives of their own design. We can do this. Being clearer about what we do, who we do it for and what they get from us, is a start!

What about you? How do you define your target market? What objections / challenges do you have about defining it? What, if anything, holds you back?

Join the conversation.


P.S. Our next EQ Profile Certification course begins May 11, 2018. Register now. Hope to see you there!


Posted in: Business of Coaching

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